This is more or less a riff on three of the panels I was on at Ravencon: Writing Believable Villains, the Shrinking of the American Hero, and Writing the Other. The three topics have a lot of overlap, so I figure I’ll expound, ramble, and generally blather on about all three.
To start with the easy and obvious, writers are pretty much by definition odd. Which means that more so than most of the human species when we write someone who isn’t us we’re more or less by definition writing “the other” (yes, I did make that comment on the Writing the Other panel). And like all humans, we understand others through the lens of our shared humanity, so the weirder we are, the murkier and more distorted that lens gets.
This, children, is why research matters. Research is not going to tell us what emotions someone will feel – although, being human, we can make a guess – but it can tell us what the socially acceptable expression of those emotions might be. A man will grieve just as much when he loses a loved one no matter what culture he’s from – but if he’s from a culture that says men don’t cry he probably won’t cry much and might divert that grief into anger or into building something as a memorial or… who knows? A man from a culture where lots of tears and big noisy expositions of grief are expected is going to do all that. He might also move to anger or building something. The important thing here is that the fellow who’s expected to be stoic feels much the same emotions as the one who’s expected to be demonstrative. It’s his culture that decides how he acts.
This, ladies, gentlemen, and others, is why writing something Other is no big challenge. Hell, if I could manage to write Vlad the Impaler’s perspective (which is, frankly, about as close to alien as you’re going to get without a spaceship being involved somewhere) with a combination of research and figuring out what the culture and his circumstances would dictate, anyone can do it. Gay male… pfft. Honestly the panelists who were so busy focusing on sexuality and race are suffering from a lack of imagination. That inner-city black lesbian they considered so very Other grew up with the same technology and mass media and whatnot as I did. Maybe not quite the same, but close enough I can extrapolate easily enough. She almost certainly grew up with at least one loving parent-figure, and a fair chance at two. They might not have been all that functional, but they almost for sure did their best.
Now, try someone from a culture where anyplace you couldn’t walk to in a day might as well be a foreign country. And an environment where it’s normal for kids to be raised by Dad’s worst enemy with the threat they’ll be killed if Dad misbehaves. Where you hardly have any interaction with your mother – or any other females – after you’re five or so. Where “advanced technology” is cannons that might not explode if you give them enough time between firing. Where glass windows are expensive and precious. That modern day inner-city black lesbian seems kind of familiar by now, doesn’t she?
See, what makes Other is not genetics. It’s not sex or sexuality. It’s the lack of shared experience. Those much-derided dead white males from as little as three hundred years ago might as well have come from a different planet for how much we have in common with them. They really are Other. And six hundred years ago? Those dudes are really alien.
Now, of course, this feeds into the question of heroes and villains and how they work. After all, they’re points on the spectrum of Other so to speak. And with the exception of your elemental Evil (best avoided unless you keep it as a shadowy mysterious force that can be undone by your world’s equivalent of tossing a trinket into an active volcano) and the barking mad (not caused by stress or anything of the sort, please. That will give your books a quick flying lesson and put you on my Do Not Touch Not Even With A Ten Foot Barge Pole list), villains are – or bloody well should be – people who would be the hero if you wrote the book from their perspective (and if you ask any self-respecting villain, they’ll tell you that you damn well should be writing the book from their perspective).
I know whereof I speak. I am, after all, the woman who wrote Vlad the Impaler as the hero (he makes a rather compelling hero, actually. Honest, honorable, courageous… yeah that was that thing with kebabbing his enemies, but hey, everyone has their flaws, right? Besides, he was no worse than any of the other rulers of his era. The difference is he lost and he got shafted by all parties, complete with the fifteenth century version of trial by propaganda).
Anyway. Heroes, antiheroes, and villains are all on the same protagonist/antagonist spectrum. As characters they have goals. The “villain’s journey” is often something of an inversion of the hero’s journey, but can also be a separate hero’s journey that fails (unless of course your villain wins). The same broad classes of challenges happen, the villain will have one or more advisers who serve for him the same purpose as the hero’s mentor. He’ll get kicked out of his comfortable rut (probably when the hero defeats him). And so forth.
I really don’t distinguish that much. The villain as a character is someone whose purpose puts him at odds with the hero. Period. He could be a really nice guy, but that damned hero has gone and started a revolt against him and now he’s got to defend everything he worked so hard for and he can’t afford to act the way he wants to because the hero will treat it as a weakness and then he’ll lose it all (alternatively, he could be a right bastard. Being the hero and being the villain don’t necessarily mean someone is going to nice. Or nasty). Basically, they’re people first and “roles in the story” somewhere after that. Unless I’m doing the shadowy figure kind of villain I use in the Con books. Being sort-of mysteries, those work better if the culprit isn’t obvious from the start as it were (speaking of which, it would be nice if the culprit for #3 would bloody speak up and let me know what’s supposed to bloody well happen. Damn you muse! Put that drink with the umbrella down and come work. The rest of us have to, you don’t get to be immune. Um…)
So there you have it. For me, heroes, villains, minor characters… I don’t actually go looking for “Other” things to give them, and I don’t class them as heroes, villains, or whatever. They’re people first. Usually bloody irritating people who tell me things on a need-to-know basis and figure I don’t need to know until I actually write the scene where it happens.